A Minute with Miles

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How did the piano get its name? Why can’t you “reach” a crescendo? Who invented opera—and why—and how do you pronounce “Handel”? These and countless other classical music questions are answered on South Carolina Public Radio’s A Minute with Miles. Hosted by longtime NPR commentator Miles Hoffman, the segments inform and entertain as they provide illuminating 60-second flights through the world of classical music. 

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Claude Debussy in 1903 wrote about the importance of giving his imagination free rein. Five years later Debussy expanded on the theme in a published interview. “You know,” he said, “People leave their homes to get away from themselves and from their surroundings. I confess that I live only in my surroundings and in myself. I can conceive of no greater pleasure than sitting in my chair at this desk and looking at the walls around me day by day and night after night..."

A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Yesterday I spoke about picturesque titles of musical compositions, and I quoted Robert Schumann on what he called the “clumsiness” of taking those titles too literally. Schumann’s friend Franz Liszt, on the other hand, coined the term “program music,” and said that when a piece has a program, or story, the musical ideas should clearly reflect the unfolding of the story—although that’s the same Franz Liszt who attached a “program” to his symphonic poem Les Préludes long after he had actually written the music.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Like many 19th-century composers, Robert Schumann often gave his works picturesque titles. Schumann’s Scenes from Childhood, for example, a set of pieces for solo piano, includes pieces with titles such as “Pleading Child,” and “Frightening.”  How literally should we take these titles – and perhaps the picturesque titles of other composers’ works? 

Scherzo, Part 2

Sep 22, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Yesterday I talked about how Beethoven replaced the minuet in his four-movement pieces with the scherzo. Scherzo means “joke,” in Italian, but in Beethoven’s scherzos you won’t usually find anything that qualifies as out-‘n-out funny. What you usually will find is a certain playfulness, with lots of fast notes, abrupt accents, surprises, and quick changes of musical direction.

Scherzo, Part 1

Sep 21, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

During the time of Haydn and Mozart, the third movement of a four-movement piece such as a symphony or string quartet was invariably a stylized dance movement called a minuet. By the end of the 1700s, though, Beethoven, in one of his many innovations, had largely replaced the minuet with a movement he called a “scherzo.” The word scherzo, which means “joke,” in Italian, had appeared in music as early as the 1600s, but it was Beethoven who gave the scherzo its modern character, and established a permanent place for it.

Synchopation, Part 2

Sep 18, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

Yesterday I talked about syncopation, how it disturbs the regular flow of rhythm, how it shifts the emphasis in music from strong beats to weak beats, or to in-between beats. I’d like to stress, though, that syncopation is a general term: there’s no limit to the number or variety of possible syncopated rhythms or syncopated patterns, and no limit to the ways they may be used.

Synchopation, Part 1

Sep 17, 2020
A Minute with Miles
Mary Noble Ours

There’s an old joke about the husband who’s been out late drinking, and when his wife asks him where he’s been, he latches onto a word he saw on the cover of a book in the window of a music store, and he says that unfortunately he had come down with a case of… syncopation.  His wife is suspicious, and after consulting the dictionary, she says, “Hmph. Just as I thought.

Vibrato Part 3

Sep 16, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I’ve been talking this week about vibrato, the vibrato that string players use to warm up their sounds, and the vocal vibrato that’s the natural product of healthy singing. All vibrato consists of small oscillations in pitch, but not all vibrato is a blessing.

Vibrato Part 2

Sep 15, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

Yesterday I talked about vibrato, the technique that string players use—rocking the fingers of their left hands back and forth to create small oscillations in pitch that result in a warmer, more resonant sound.

Vibrato Part 1

Sep 14, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

When violinists play, their left hands always seem to shake. But it’s not because they’re nervous. Violinists, violists, cellists, and double bass players all use a technique called vibrato.

A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

A word of advice today for non-musicians reading program notes in concert programs: If the program notes are heavy on technical analysis and are loaded with terms like modulation, inversion, augmentation, diatonic intervals, chromatic progression, modified sonata form, what have you… ignore them.


A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

It’s an old question: if you were going to be dropped off on a desert island and you could only take a few recorded pieces of music with you, what would they be? For me, the first piece on the list is easy: Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.


Neuroscience

Sep 9, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

I’m grateful for advances in neuroscience, and for many reasons glad that every day we know more about how the brain works. But for all the studies of left brains, right brains, and neuron networks, some things will remain mysteries, and there’s no way around it.


Spiccato

Sep 8, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The literal meaning of the Italian word spiccato is similar to that of staccato—“detached,” or “distinct.” In string playing, to play notes spiccato means to play them with a bouncing bow. With its stiff but flexible stick and tightened horsehair, the bow is like a long spring, so it wants to bounce. But spiccato involves a controlled bouncing. The bow comes off the string after each note, but the player has to find the balance between making the bow bounce and letting it bounce.


Strings

Sep 7, 2020
A Minute with Miles
SC Public Radio/Mary Noble Ours

The strings of stringed instruments—violins, violas, cellos, basses, guitars, and harps—may be made of steel, nylon or other synthetics, or of gut. Often the steel, nylon, or gut serves as the core of the string, and around the core is a tight winding of very fine wire—wire of steel, aluminum, or silver.


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